Unlocking a liver receptor puzzle

Biochemist Eric Ortlund and graduate student Suzanne Mays determined how potential diabetes drugs interact with their target, the protein Read more

Insane in the membrane - inflamed in the brain

Green and red fluorescent cells allow the visualization of brain inflammation in status Read more

Flow mediated dilation

Demonstration of flow-mediated dilation, a test of endothelial function. Impaired endothelial function is an early stage in the process of Read more

Cancer

Nutty stimulant revealed as anticancer tool

Arecoline — the stimulant component of areca nuts — has anticancer properties, researchers at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University have discovered. The findings were published Thursday, November 17 in Molecular Cell.

areca-nut-and-arecoline

Areca nut and chemical structure of arecoline. From Wikimedia.

Areca nuts are chewed for their stimulant effects in many Asian countries, and evidence links the practice to the development of oral and esophageal cancer. Analogous to nicotine, arecoline was identified as an inhibitor of the enzyme ACAT1, which contributes to the metabolism-distorting Warburg effect in cancer cells.

Observers of health news have complained that coffee, as a widely cited example, is implicated in causing cancer one week and absolved the next. Arecoline is not another instance of the same trend, stresses senior author Jing Chen, PhD, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute.

“This is just a proof of principle, showing that ACAT1 is a good anticancer target,” Chen says. “We view arecoline as a lead to other compounds that could be more potent and selective.”

Chen says that arecoline could be compared to arsenic, a form of which is used as a treatment for acute promyelocytic leukemia, but is also linked to several types of cancer. Plus, arecoline’s cancer-promoting effects may be limited if it is not delivered or absorbed orally, he says. When arecoline first arose in a chemical screen, Chen says: “It sounded like a carcinogen to me. But it all depends on the dose and how it is taken into the body.” Read more

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Bad neighbors cause bad blood -> cancer

Certain DNA mutations in bone cells that support blood development can drive leukemia formation in nearby blood stem cells, cancer researchers have found.

Many cancer-driving mutations are “cell-autonomous,” meaning the change in a cell’s DNA makes that same cell grow more rapidly. In contrast, an indirect neighbor cell effect was observed in a mouse model of Noonan syndrome, an inherited disorder that increases the risk of developing leukemia.

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In mouse bone marrow, mesenchymal stem cells (red), which normally nurture blood stem cells, produce a signal that is attractive for monocytes. The monocytes (green) prod nearby blood stem cells to proliferate, leading to leukemia. From Dong et al Nature (2016).

The findings were published Wednesday, October 26 in Nature.

The neighbor cell effect could be frustrating efforts to treat leukemias in patients with Noonan syndrome and a related condition, juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML). That’s because bone marrow transplant may remove the cancerous cells, but not the cause of the problem, leading to disease recurrence. However, the researchers show that a class of drugs can dampen the cancer-driving neighbor effect in mice. One of the drugs, maraviroc, is already FDA-approved against HIV infection.

“Our research highlights the importance of the bone marrow microenvironment,” says Cheng-Kui Qu, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine, Winship Cancer Institute and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “We found that a disease-associated mutation, which disturbs the niches where blood stem cell development occurs, can lead to leukemia formation.”

Editorial note: This Nature News + Views, aptly titled “Bad neighbors cause bad blood,” explains JMML, and how the relapse rate after bone marrow transplant is high (about 50 percent). It also notes that a variety of genetic alterations provoke leukemia when engineered into bone marrow stromal cells in mice (like this), but Qu and his colleagues described one that is associated with a known human disease.

Noonan syndrome often involves short stature, distinctive facial features, congenital heart defects and bleeding problems. It occurs in between one in 1000 to one in 2500 people, and can be caused by mutations in several genes. The most common cause is mutations in the gene PTPN11. Children with Noonan syndrome are estimated to have a risk of developing leukemia or other cancers that is eight times higher than their peers.
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Immunotherapy for triple negative breast cancer

Treatments that unleash the immune system against cancer have been a hot topic for the last few years, but they do not appear in our recent feature on breast cancer for Winship Cancer Institute’s magazine.

Partly, that’s because decent avenues for treatment exist for most types of breast cancer, with improvements in survival since the 1980s. Immunotherapy’s successes have been more dramatic for types of cancer against which progress had been otherwise meager, such as lung cancers and metastatic melanoma.

Jane Meisel, MD with patient

Winship oncologist Jane Meisel, MD with patient

However, for “triple-negative” breast cancer (TNBC) in particular, immunotherapy could be a good match, because of the scarcity of targeted treatments and because TNBC’s genomic instability may be well-suited to immunotherapy.

Winship oncologists Jane Meisel and Keerthi Gogineni inform Lab Land that several early-phase clinical studies open to breast cancer patients, testing “checkpoint inhibitor” agents such as PD-1 inhibitors, are underway. More are pending.

Meisel’s presentation at Winship’s Sea Island retreat says that immunotherapy is “not yet ready for prime time, but a very promising experimental approach for a subset of patients for whom current therapies are not sufficient. We need to better understand which subsets of patients are most likely to benefit, and how we can use other therapies to enhance efficacy in patients who don’t initially respond.”

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Anticancer strategy: expanding what is druggable

Scientists at Winship Cancer Institute, Emory University have identified compounds that stop two elusive anticancer targets from working together. In addition to striking two birds with one stone, this research could expand the envelope of what is considered “druggable.”

fx1-1Many of the proteins and genes that have critical roles in cancer cell growth and survival have been conventionally thought of as undruggable. That’s because they’re inside the cell and aren’t enzymes, for which chemists have well-developed sabotage strategies.

In a twist, the potential anticancer drugs described in Cancer Cell disable an interaction between a notorious cancer-driving protein, MDM2, and a RNA encoding a radiation-resistance factor, XIAP.

The compounds could be effective against several types of cancer, says senior author Muxiang Zhou, MD, professor of pediatrics (hematology/oncology) at Emory University School of Medicine and Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.

In the paper, the compounds show activity against leukemia and neuroblastoma cells in culture and in mice, but a fraction of many other cancers, such as breast cancers (15 percent) and sarcoma (20 percent), show high levels of MDM2 and should be susceptible to them.

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Posted on by Quinn Eastman in Cancer 1 Comment

Outcomes in minimally invasive lung cancer surgery

To accompany our recent article on minimally invasive lung surgery for Winship magazine, please find a video featuring thoracic surgeon Manu Sancheti, MD.

As Sancheti explains, an advantage of minimally invasive approaches (sometimes called VATS for video-assisted thoracic surgery) is that surgeons do not open the patient’s chest, avoiding pain and potential complications and reducing length of stay in the hospital.

Among thoracic surgeons, the shift to this type of approach has taken place in the last few years — unevenly. Here’s a graph froLung surgery graphm one recent publication from Felix Fernandez, MD and colleagues, showing the percent of stage I lung cancer surgeries — compiled for individual surgeons in the Society of Thoracic Surgeons  — that are minimally invasive from 2011-2014. The average is about 63 percent, but it varies widely.

Attention medical journalists: if you want to ask questions like “Are these minimally invasive lung surgery approaches really good for long term patient outcomes?”, Fernandez is your guy. As the numbers come in, he is leading a team that is analyzing them. Read more

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FDA approves Emory-developed cancer imaging probe

A cancer imaging agent that was originally developed at Emory was approved on Friday, May 27 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Axumin, a PET (positron emission tomography) imaging agent, is indicated for diagnosis of recurrent prostate cancer in men who have elevated PSA levels after previous treatment. Axumin, now being commercialized by UK-based Blue Earth Diagnostics, is also known as 18F-fluciclovine or FACBC (an abbreviation for anti-1-amino-3-[18F]fluorocyclobutane-1- carboxylic acid).

goodman-schuster

Mark Goodman, PhD (left) and David Schuster, MD (right)

Imaging using axumin/fluciclovine is expected to help doctors detect and localize recurrent prostate cancer, and could guide biopsy or the planning of additional treatment. Fluciclovine was originally developed at Emory by Mark Goodman and Timothy Shoup, who is now at Massachusetts General Hospital.

The earliest research on fluciclovine in the 1990s was on its use for imaging brain tumors, and it received a FDA “orphan drug” designation for the diagnosis of glioma in 2015. About a decade ago, Emory researchers stumbled upon fluciclovine’s utility with prostate cancer, while investigating its activity in a patient who appeared to have renal cancer, according to radiologist David Schuster, who has led several clinical studies testing fluciclovine.

“This led us to see if this radiotracer would be good for looking at prostate cancer, specifically because of its low native urinary excretion,” Schuster is quoted as saying in the radiology newsletter Aunt Minnie. “If you look at the history of medical science, it is taking advantage of the unexpected.”

Early research on the probe was supported by Nihon Mediphysics, and later support for clinical research on FACBC/fluciclovine came from the National Cancer Institute, the Georgia Research Alliance and the Georgia Cancer Coalition. [Both Emory and Goodman are eligible to receive royalties from its commercialization]. Additional information here.

References for two completed studies on fluciclovine in recurrent prostate cancer

Odewole OA et al. Comparison with CT imaging (2016) 

Schuster DM et al. Head to head comparison with ProstaScint (2014). Read more

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Three-stage delivery for platinum-based “cluster bombs” against cancer

Scientists have devised a triple-stage “cluster bomb” system for delivering the chemotherapy drug cisplatin, via tiny nanoparticles designed to break up when they reach a tumor.

Details of the particles’ design and their potency against cancer in mice are described this week in PNAS Early Edition. They have not been tested in humans, although similar ways of packaging cisplatin have been in clinical trials. Anticancer cluster bombs

What makes these particles distinctive is that they start out relatively large — 100 nanometers wide – to enable smooth transport into the tumor through leaky blood vessels. Then, in acidic conditions found close to tumors, the particles discharge “bomblets” just 5 nanometers in size.

Inside tumor cells, a second chemical step activates the platinum-based cisplatin, which kills by crosslinking and damaging DNA. Doctors have used cisplatin to fight several types of cancer for decades, but toxic side effects – to the kidneys, nerves and inner ear — can limit its effectiveness.

The PNAS paper is the result of a collaboration between a team led by professor Jun Wang, PhD at the University of Science and Technology of China, and researchers led by professor Shuming Nie, PhD in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory. Nie is a member of the Discovery and Developmental Therapeutics research program at Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University. The lead authors are graduate student Hong-Jun Li and postdoctoral fellows Jinzhi Du, PhD and Xiao-Jiao Du, PhD.

“The negative side effects of cisplatin are a long-standing limitation for conventional chemotherapy,” says Jinzhi Du. “In our study, the delivery system was able to improve tumor penetration to reach more cancer cells, as well as release the drugs specifically inside cancer cells through their size-transition property.”

The researchers showed that their nanoparticles could enhance cisplatin drug accumulation in tumor tissues. When mice bearing human pancreatic tumors were given the same doses of free cisplatin or cisplatin clothed in pH-sensitive nanoparticles, the level of platinum in tumor tissues was seven times higher with the nanoparticles. This suggests the possibility that nanoparticle delivery could restrain the toxic side effects of cisplatin during cancer treatment. Read more

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Lung cancer cells go amoeboid

Cancer biologists Jessica Konen and Scott Wilkinson, in Adam Marcus’ lab, recently published a paper on the function of LKB1, a gene that is often mutated in lung cancer cells. [Number three behind K-ras and p53.]

Amoeboid

Mesenchymal shape is defined as having a length more than twice the width. Amoeboid looks more like the cell on the right: rounded up. Thanks to Jessica Konen for photo.

Konen and Marcus were featured in a prize-winning video that our team produced last year, which discusses how they developed a technique for isolating “leader cells” — lung cancer cells that migrate and invade more quickly — from a large group and studying those cells’ properties more intensively.

The Molecular Biology of the Cell paper covers a related topic: how LKB1 mutation affects cell shape. In particular, losing LKB1 converts lung cancer cells from a “mesenchymal” morphology to an “amoeboid” morphology.  Read more

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Device for viewing glowing brain tumors

People touched by a brain tumor — patients, their families or friends — may have heard of the drug Gliolan or 5-ALA, which is taken up preferentially by tumor cells and makes them fluorescent. The idea behind it is straightforward: if the neurosurgeon can see the tumor’s boundaries better during surgery, he or she can excise it more thoroughly and accurately.

5-ALA is approved for use in Europe but is still undergoing evaluation by the U.S. FDA. A team at Emory was the first to test this drug in the United States. [Note: A similar approach, based on protease activation of a fluorescent probe, was reported last week in Science Translational Medicine.]

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A hand-held device to detect glowing brain tumors could allow closer access to the critical area than a surgical microscope

Biomedical engineer Shuming Nie and colleagues recently described their development of a hand-held spectroscopic device for viewing fluorescent brain tumors. This presents a contrast with the current tool, a surgical microscope — see figure.

Nie’s team tested their technology on specimens obtained from cancer surgeries. Their paper in Analytical Chemistry reports:

The results indicate that intraoperative spectroscopy is at least 3 orders of magnitude more sensitive than the current surgical microscopes, allowing ultrasensitive detection of as few as 1000 tumor cells. Read more

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Chasing invasive cancer cells and more at #ASCB15

Earlier today, we posted a notice on Eurekalert for a Sunday, December 13 presentation by graduate student Jessica Konen at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting in San Diego.

Her research, performed with Adam Marcus at Winship Cancer Institute, was the topic of a video that recently won first prize in a contest sponsored by the Association of American Medical Colleges. This was our video team’s first use of the “fast hand on whiteboard” effect, and a lot of fun to make. The video’s strength grows out of the footage Konen and Marcus have of cancer cells migrating in culture. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

Poster presentations at the 2015 ASCB meeting can be found by searching this PDF. A few Emory-centric highlights:

*Chelsey Ruppersburg and Criss Hartzell’s work on the “nimbus”, a torus-shaped structure enriched in proteins needed to build the cell’s primary cilium

*Anita Corbett on how Emory students have a strong record of attaining their own NIH research funding

*Additional work by Adam Marcus’ lab on the tumor suppressor gene LKB1 and how its loss drives lung cancer cells to take on a “unique amoeboid morphology”

*Research from David Katz’s lab on the “epigenetic eraser” LSD1 (lysine-specific demethylase) and its function in neurons and neurodegeneration Read more

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